An Audience with the Master
creative non-fiction by Linden Thorp
He proffers his wise words to me via an interpreter, which do not easily make meaning, but form a special kind of learning and awareness. A small devout audience looks on. The Master, who speaks without effort or introduction as if he has always known me, sits on a substantial, expertly-crafted teak throne. The intricate carvings of the hardwood, which thrives in the forests of the north of this country, let the sharp light through. It reveals that each tiny religious motif, handled by deft fingers and produced by keen eyes, is highly polished.
Each one is a performance of light and wood by energy-actors from the same school. While carving this noble seat for an enlightened one, the makers have bowed three times in devotion for each tap of their tiny hammers.
The Master too is polished and devotional, seated easily on his throne. His left hand lightly holds dark prayer beads, the other rests in his wide skirted lap. After he has pronounced these words to me, silence and light harmonise with the polished wood to create a state beyond waiting or anticipation. It is as though all the energy in the universe is amalgamated into one suddenly. As I kneel before him, I notice that my breath is shallow, but that suddenly it deepens.
In an ancient Buddhist way, which expresses certain tenderness, the deep ochre cloth of his ample monk’s robes reveals the gentle slant of his pale right shoulder. His stillness is that of a fine tree, his leaf-green eyes like spring buds. When he speaks, his voice is a fabric of the regular interlocking of both gentle and strong fibres. It is steadily reeled out from a place of utter faith. Faith is the type of self-belief not concerned with the ego. It is both respectful and masterful at the same moment. It is sheer sincerity with oneself and with every single being one meets. In fact, it is having the talent to truly live one’s pure nature.
And it is certain that the energy of the voice cannot be faked, except by those whose talent it is to imitate others, those who deal in measuring vocal vibrations and copying them, often because they do not have a voice themselves. Such people are ventriloquists and mimics. As expected, the voice of the master is of the utmost sincerity. It is aware of the grand design of this pagoda dominating the precincts of the monastery he is the spiritual leader of. But it is a voice indifferent to his position and the expectations of him, to the queues of novices waiting for his guidance, the ongoing missions of world peace, and the quiet acceptance of the government’s insistence on meddling in religious affairs.
Instead, his voice is securely fastened to his quiet heart, which first opened totally when his mind finally became quiet. He was walking in meditation in a forest clearing at the time. That is where he first learned to be a tree, and where his years of silence allowed the spirit of his vocal sounds to be purified. A tree connects the sky and the earth, its roots burrowing down to earthly truth, its high branches reaching up to heavenly truth, and between them human sounds move in deep waves. Human beings whose roots rot or vanish, squander sounds in empty chatter and gossip, their trunks tilted, their limbs deformed. They are lost and unable to focus, their voices weak, having respect only for inane things.
The stories of the Master’s retreat away from the world for fifteen years into the forests of the north are famous. Perhaps it is a strange thing to want to sit at the feet of someone who left the world, and yet who knows all there is to know about the world. But, perhaps not. He did not study to achieve worldly qualifications, or to discover knowledge previously hidden, straining through books in a constant and desperate intellectual search for evidence, struggling in vain to fill a bottomless vessel.
Instead, he knew to walk the same unwritten narrow path between two chosen trees, day after day, come rain or shine. Struggling to bring all the attention of his mind to each of his steps, to the lifting of each leg and its careful placement on the desiccated leaves of the floor of the mountain forest. Walking and walking until he was walking beyond walking. This is where and how he learned the greatest knowing of all, by turning his back on his intellect. By ceasing the continual vapid dialogue which the mind can generate if untrained, and instead listening exclusively to his heart beating behind each of his steps.
This is true focus, the focus that I have grown to understand and admire the most. Sincere focus is transformed into devotion when the object is completely worthy of respect, and the vessel is always perfectly full. His diligent work to still the mind in this way inspires me to know a more meaningful reason for human existence, to visit the world of reality beyond the constructions of thought and intellectual reasoning. Through his pure deep voice, the reality of unconditional love, joy and trust come brightly into earshot, and with it there is hope that I too can work to love and trust as he does.
Hidden deep in the forest, his skin seasoned like wood by weather, his head and chin both shaved regularly and closely with a sharp knife in a puddle’s reflection, he steps from under the dim forest canopy into full sunlight. His movement is fluid and unhindered. He is completely at ease in skin directly reflecting his emptied mind, emptied if only for a second in time. The drape of his dark berry-red robe, his costume, is the only thing making him in any way different from fellow tree or monkey or elephant.
Perhaps the thread woven to make the cloth of his robe is the only remnant of mind left here. Barefoot in the dust, he turns to look back at the path he constantly treads between his tree brothers. He adjusts the long lengths of the coarse silk of his robes across his hot back, and prepares to try another stint to close down the negative mind. Another attempt to become totally immersed in each careful step. This and only this.
Ornate curtains provide privacy to the master’s chambers. They waft slightly as we, the audience, move our bodies in making the necessary preparations to be in the presence of this legend. I kneel, a pupil, before him. Kneeling is a pose virtually extinct in the west. However, I am well accustomed to it. My spine is straight and bathed in perspiration from the late morning heat. The clutter of a western traveller is spread out around me on the carpet of pale silk. Travel documents, a wrinkled book, malaria medication, insect repellent, camera, my notebook and beloved gold pen.
My young guides, who have conveyed me here, prostrate themselves before him. They are uncluttered and slight, rocking forward to touch the ground with their foreheads and bouncing three times there. They possess only packed wallets tucked into the waist of their colourful lungis, long skirts made of beautiful textiles. Their slender lower torsos are tied up tightly in a simplicity of air and cotton which they constantly adjust, pulling the huge knot at the front even tighter.
But the guides can hardly bear to look at this revered teacher, submission to the spiritually elevated like breath or water to them. It is moving to see their effusive subservience to him when my own experience is that they are confident, negotiating a modern world of materialism and tourists, driving people-carriers and sipping beer at the Yangon Strand Hotel with their clients.
For my part it seems appropriate that I just press my palms before me and bow my head in a gesture of namaste, a humble and beautiful pose centred on the heart. It shows the respect and deep gratitude nowadays so natural to me. But, unlike the others, I look openly into the master’s face, almost confronting it. I wonder if it is my arrogance causing me to resist the complete deference which the others in this cool room display. Or is it simply a cultural attitude learned in the northern hemisphere?
It is then that I so strongly realise, as never before, that my own levels of sincerity and integrity are merely a question of my courage to be completely honest with myself. They are for each of us to measure in our own unique ways and in our own time. I know I must do this before I can squarely look into my own reflection to find the sum of my personal truth.
Here, in this downtown pagoda, I know that I have the means to take the Buddha’s way to find enlightenment simply by looking inside myself. That he is inside me as he is inside the Master and all humankind. That he is simply the untainted human spirit. There! Simple words you would think! But this not unexpected realization, that I know so well in my head, boils the crucible behind my eyes, condensing small tears.
I accept that I myself hold all the answers to my own happiness here in the cave of my own heart. Resistance is the pre-occupation of the intellect, but a sincere heart resists nothing and disputes with no one.
As the prostrations subside, whilst muttering various blessings for his kinsmen, he scours my eyes. They are a pale flood, made from sky and spider’s webs, whilst his are of moist earth and rock and deep roots. The dreamlike quality of this meeting allows intense familiarity even though we are human strangers, our spirits earnestly recognising each other in realms far outside time and space.
The wise words he utters in Asian tonal tongue seem to form a concept or notion in translation. Or is it simply a metaphor? I am conscious of listening as they are relayed warm-heartedly to me by the elderly interpreter, but it is only later that I strive to make certain that I have understood properly. After all, finding my way here and fully experiencing this rare audience, are more important than understanding why or how.
I intuitively know that I must focus on the wisdom compressed into these scant phrases, and take it directly into my life. That wisdom is not contained in meaning as we are led to believe. Above all, I acknowledge that I am in the presence of the pure sounds of truth, my own truth, which are amplified from the Master’s all-knowing mirror.
Much later as I leave, walking to the gate of the monastery past the queues of shaven-headed novice monks and nuns being served with their lunch, the interpreter confirms the meaning of his Master’s words. He makes certain there are no other possible interpretations. I have learned to extricate myself from the temptation to constantly make and unmake interpretations. This is an attempt to distance myself from the heavy conditioning of the intellectual tradition from which I come in the west.
As a young child I recognised that spiritual concerns were of much more importance than those of acquisitive mind, as many children do, and I was lucky enough to tread a pathway, which has allowed me to maintain my juvenile priorities, unlike many adults.
Even later, in a different country, I would swear that what I write here is not a memory of what was said by him to me. Instead, it is as if the words are being announced repeatedly to me as in a mantra by candlelight, in an alien language, alien both to me and to the country I am residing in. One definition of the ancient word mantra is ‘a continually reiterated protection for trivial and neurotic mind.’ And the tongue of his utterance has the temper of the ancient now-unspoken language of the Buddha’s time.
Meanwhile, outside my modern veranda door, sacred cherry blossom snows down, and bicyclists stop to let it fall into their hair, refusing to brush it out, like a divine dandruff. A phone rings somewhere, and the pedestrian signal to cross the wide busy road is a perennial cuckoo. But, as we should know, the sound of timeless truth never fades and is not fixed to a place. I have just arrived in this far-eastern city of a thousand temples to take up my white robes coated with delicate fragrances of Pacific forests, and to tend lotuses, as I was told by the Master on his lips:
You must wear white garments from now on. Give up dyed or stained clothing. Kick away shoes and know the earth with your feet.
These are the word-amulets which he gives to me to take away on my journey eastwards that day. Words are enduring gifts if the intention behind them is pure and selfless. Such gifts have been sprinkled lightly throughout my life in the visual language of dreams. Perhaps more striking and unpalatable on the lips of drunkards and the slap of a hand across my cheek.
I have always known that the secrets of my destiny were available to me in this way, but now and here they appear in this sanctum on the Master’s tongue. It is unsurprising that this human whom I have never met before speaks my destiny in these curious instructions. But, remove the concepts of time and space and it becomes possible that all the human beings that have ever lived, ever gulped air into their lungs, have met and had a hand in each others’ lives. That the countless members of our lineages do not form a speechless queue behind and in front of us, each person handing on a little of themselves ahead when they die and are born. But that instead they are all different aspects of the same person, the same spirit.
That mothers and daughters exist side by side in an eternal circle of different tiers only accessible from different levels of wisdom: That they actually are each other, and not separate.
It occurs to me that analysis and separation seem to be the main ambition of the intellect!
A kiss shared between spiritual equals blends their spirits together in such a way that they do become one. It creates an indestructible union of two spirits sharing the same destiny. This is the kiss that unknowingly so many of us spend our lives looking for and rarely find. Perhaps this is what the lips are truly intended for. Not for mindless speech and blowing bubbles. Indeed, perhaps the silent smooth flap of mouths of truth against each other in silence is the only sincere way to communicate for humans.
There are moments, though scarce nowadays, when I unconsciously attempt to trace the learning, which enables me to know what words proffered like the Master’s should mean. Or, even how to get into a situation where someone will say something of this nature to me, which I will recognise, or even hear. But there is nothing linear about it, no hint of a chronology, no white-mind logic. I cannot ask the questions when or where, how or why.
You and I agreed, back in a western city of a thousand spires, that dreams have always been important to us, and that we have tried to listen to them despite cutting and derisory comments from others. I shared the recurrent dream since I was a young child with you, so that these words, uttered to me in this remote country of Myanmar before a great Master of the truth, will have a grand significance for you. You, who shared preparations for what is unfolding in my life, and are witness to all, but are unable to accompany me. You, who are still entangled with negative karma detaining you from what your heart knows and needs to put into action, but that your head rejects.
Being apart from you is thousands of miles in the mind, but only across the ditch in the heart. I hear your voice in strong mode telling me my own dream, enjoying pronouncing the words of it, my words, which you have memorized:
A young fair-headed child looks softly into a mirror. She wonders at her pale skin and iceberg eyes, and is involved in intimately experiencing herself directly, the eye seeing exclusively. She is certain that there is no imagining at all.
Each slow blink of her long lashes reveals a different person there in the large mirror surface: male, female, young, elderly, of many different complexions – a compendium of karmic identities. And someone photographs this procession of reflections obsessively from behind her, flash bulbs sizzling, the shutter rasping.
Then, as the rapid flick of images stops, from the side, dark elegant hands offer white robes of fine cotton to decorate the smooth skin of this mirror child. The child accepts them, and slowly raises them towards her nose to absorb the scents of “jasmine” and “Japanese cedar,” names which she repeats to ensure that sensing is exclusive, letting the sounds of the words drop away with their idea.
Then the dark hands offer a large stem of pink lotus complete with several woody seed-cases, the lotus being the only plant in existence which produces seeds whilst still in flower, and which can thrive in the poorest patch of mud.
The child smiles and walks out of the reflection, cool bare feet spreading on marble.
Since that time, white garments, bare feet and lotuses have always been important symbols in my life despite my modern urban origins in the first world. Now, as I get closer to the moment I have been preparing for from my birth, I am instructed by this Master to take them up. Words are also spiritual signs etched into our energy constellation; a certain pattern of stars embedded within millions of others, which we can only read when we are ready to.
As I leave the audience with the Master, walking with the charming interpreter through the confusion of converted buildings towards the gate, I feel the need to clarify.
“Do I need to wear white garments, or is this expression symbolic?”
He looks at me kindly, his devotion to his Master and the monastery so unshakeable that his steps do not pause to speak.
“You will know.”
He smiles reassuringly and shows me out courteously on to the busy street, bidding a local farewell to my guides.